Cod and Ships. Apples and Onions.

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Don’t you love the geometry of old sailing vessels? This is Mavis winning Skerries regatta in 1928, a little before my time. Designed and built by the legendary John Kearney of Ringsend, it is heartwarming to know that she is being restored in Camden, Maine at present, with a re-launch date of July 2015. The Kearneys of Ringsend, made a massive contribution to boat building in Skerries over the years.  Everyone without exception, responds to sailing vessels, the adventurer, the yachtsman, the romantic dreamer, the poet, the painter,the wood-worker, the storyteller. There is an elegance to a sailing ship that belies the hard work and danger involved in harnessing the wind. She arrives mysteriously, as a cloud appearing over the horizon and departs like a stately lady adjusting her train, tilting her hat and shaking out her parasol.

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In the early 19th century there were over one hundred sailing vessels fishing and trading out of Skerries. Despite the changes brought about by two centuries, the harbour is still recognisable. The power behind all this activity lay the sail-maker’s skill. The village provided employment through several sail lofts, a bark yard and a rope-walk. Without these, commerce would have been in the Doldrums, to borrow a phrase. Red Island, as is well known, took its name from the red sail-cloth drying on the grass. The tan-bark was boiled in a great cauldron and the canvas was soaked, strengthened and given its characteristic colour.

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As a child I thought that the Bark Yard was full of dogs. I gave it a wide berth, to borrow another phrase. It became a coal yard. It is now an impregnable fortress with an enormous oil tank inside. Only the windows show where the covered building stood, where sails were cut and sewn and men gossipped and argued about boats and fishing and always, the laws of the sea. “If me mother was on the port tack and wouldn’t give way, I’d run her up on the Dorn of Shennick.” The corner-stones of dressed limestone bear witness still to what an imposing place it was. Oil is the power now. It drives commerce and world politics. It shimmers on the waters of the harbour. It stinks. It never suggests an elegant lady in a flowing dress, with a white parasol over her shoulder.

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(Elizabeth Howard, Photo courtesy of Bill Dunne)

In the final year of the Great Famine, Charles McManus, of Lower Quay, Street, Skerries, like many thousands of other Irish people, took his family to Boston. He took also his skill as a sail-maker, learnt and perfected in The Bark Yard. He prospered in that great seaport. The McManus name, through several generations, became synonymous with sail making and the design of  schooners for the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. The seemingly inexhaustible supply of cod from those foggy and unpredictable waters, went to feed the expanding population of a newly industrial America. By general consent, the McManus schooners were by far the safest in the fishing grounds. It is tempting to think that the DNA of the Skerries boats evolved, through Charles McManus and his descendants, into the sleek racing yachts and schooners of New England. A poet would get away with such an idea. A storyteller would think it and maybe, weave some strands together.

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In 1836 Richard Henry Dana sailed from Boston as an ordinary seaman, for ‘two years before the mast.’  His journey took him around The Horn to trade for hides in Mexican California. He recounts how he was sent ashore to a little island called Alcatraz to cut wood for the cook’s fire. He also tells how his ship, the brig, Pilgrim, on the return journey, met an outgoing ship carrying fruit and vegetables. They traded hides for onions, the first fresh vegetables they had eaten in months. Everywhere on the ship, below and aloft, the men munched onions. They gloried in onions. They discussed and rhapsodized about, onions. Like Darwin, the voyage gave him time to think. He espoused education and humanitarian causes. He opposed slavery. He wrote a great book. Our father read it to us from a battered and much handled copy, with the stitching hanging out. We wondered at the notion of tanned hides flying from the cliffs down to the beach like enormous bats. We shivered at the notion of flogging. We thrilled at the descriptions of icebergs and the storms around Cape Horn. But always I thought irreverently, about the onions. The Doldrums presented no problem to Pilgrim.

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(Photo courtesy of Fergus Ryan)

My father’s Aunt Nellie rented a house beside the Bark Yard. There was an apple tree in the garden…Beauty of Bath. She sent The Pony Daly to deliver a sack of apples to us. This was Heaven. At any time of the day or night you could go and get an apple and munch away, until inevitably, tragically the sack was depleted. My brothers, the swabs, had taken the last ones. String them from the yard-arms, keel haul them, trice them aloft, the scurvy dogs. I recognised the situation when Jim Hawkins hid in the apple barrel and overheard Long John, Israel Hands and other malcontents plotting mutiny on Hispaniola. A story to feed the imagination. Ben Gunne as you recall, longed for cheese. I imagine that Aunt Nellie could have taken those mutineers in hand. She made great apple tarts, with cloves from Zanzibar, where Arab dhows with lateen sails, cleave the waters of the Indian Ocean and the ghost of Vasco da Gama still haunts the shores of Africa. Diolinda of Wexford, my grandfather’s schooner, saw out her last years in those waters. Stories all driven by sail.

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(Lower Quay Street is now the narrow end of Strand Street. Charles McManus lived in the first cottage on The Crack, from where Joe and Rory Kelly set out to sail the oceans of the world.)

Monument Corner, Cowboys and Cornerboys.

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I heard an old actor,( correction, actore,) telling a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a translation of a Sean O Casey play, for a tour of Israel. A complaint from, I think, Captain Boyle, (he complained a lot) “Chisellers nowadays has no respect for their parents” was rendered into Hebrew as “Stone-cutters nowadays have no respect for their parents.” It loses something in translation. The stone-cutters who made The Monument had great respect for their craft and for their materials, translating Milverton limestone into a mini version of The Wellington Monument. It tells of the great respect and affection with which the tenants of James Hans Hamilton M.P. regarded him. It was a different time, as they say nowadays. Things were done differently, as they never tire of telling us. The late Christy Fox told me that when he was young, it was regarded as a patriotic duty to pull a railing off  The Monument. They were solid wrought iron, but over the years they became bedraggled and bent from the attentions of young lads. We could rotate some of them to the extent that they had gouged holes in the limestone. We could get inside and play hide and seek around the steps.  No respect.

As a very small chiseller, I too got lost there. My mother left me holding the handle of the pram, ‘minding the baby’, while she nipped into The Medical Hall, one of the businesses on the left. They had everything in there, in little mahogany drawers with brass handles and labels, although it was quite a while before I could read about the mythical contents. . They had myrrh! They had nard? They had manna, for Heaven’s sake. Maybe she nipped in for some frankincense. I nipped over to peer into the phone box. There were bus tickets and cigarette butts on the floor. The little windows were dirty. I struggled to open the door and go inside. I couldn’t reach the phone high up on the wall. I saw my mother coming out and looking around in panic.  I yelled but she couldn’t hear me. It was like shouting under water, like in a nightmare. The door was so heavy that it took me a while to open it. She must have concluded that I had wandered off towards home. It was the first time I ever saw my mother running.  She ran across the road and round the corner into Cross Street. She had abandoned me.  The world was suddenly a grim and frightening place. I bawled in terror and tried to catch her.

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There were two young boys sitting on a doorstep at one of the cottages on the left. It must have been a slow afternoon for amusement. I was manna from on high, a lost and weeping toddler. In the best traditions of Irish hospitality and helping the distressed traveller, one of them gave me a clout in the face. It made their day. I ran on, on legs too short for any speed, bleating like a lost lamb. I did a round of the block, past the Munster and Leinster Bank and down Convent Lane.  I spotted her with the pram, running past the end of the lane. Her distress was evident, even at a distance.  It was like Saint Aidan’s swallow flitting across the hall, from one window to another, out from darkness, a second in the light of life and back again into the black void of eternity. I yelled even louder. She came back, in freeze-frame. I ran to her. All was well even though she scolded me severely. I held on after that.

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What a vantage point it was to watch all the excitement of Strand Street. By the time the motor bike races began, the pump {Plate 1} at the corner had been relocated to the pavement. However exciting the motor bikes may have been, they could not compete with the hustle and bustle of a typical day’s traffic, two ‘oul’ ones’ and a pony trap. There should be a dog in the picture. There was always a dog. There should be a man on a bike. He had the street to himself from the invention of photography until the coming of the horseless carriage. Maybe he has  nipped into the Grand Hotel down at the end of the street, just for ‘the one’.  Maybe he has gone to get a shovel and brush to sweep up some of the dung for his garden. Note the finely chiselled, limestone kerbs. There are still a good few of them, resisting the advance of tarmacadam. Most of the cobble stones have been obliterated. The place is thronged with horseless carriages nowadays. When will the traffic get back to normal?

Click on Plate2 and you will see Duffs’ farmyard, right in the centre of the town. This was one of the remarkable features of old Skerries. I recall at least four farmyards along the main streets. Christy Fox explained to me the economic importance of the dung hill in an almost self-sufficient farming family. It was in the centre of the yard, where waste from, byre, stable and house, could be conveniently dumped. The pigs had the run of the yard. None of that oul’ health and safety to complicate peoples’ lives. As chisellers, we contributed to the economy by driving Duffs’ cows home to Strand Street in the evenings, for milking. We became cowboys because we were friends with Ronnie Duff.  Cowboys, not drovers. Drovers are shambling fellows with ash-plants, mis-shapen hats and mackintoshes. Cowboys strut. Cowboys run also, to shut gates along the way and drive the cows away from every lane and intersection, down Dublin Road, Hoar Rock or Cross Street.  Cowboys have to be nippy on the feet to avoid the splatters of dung from the plodding, waddling, sashaying, swaying, milk-laden animals.  An occupational hazard of the trail drive. All we lacked were horses and six-shooters. We lost our suburban garden gate thirty years ago. It rusted away. I felt a twinge of anxiety about what would happen when the cows came along. I could stand there on guard until the cows come home, if you know what I mean, and no cows will come splattering down the road to invade our garden and cavort around the lawn with their white rolling eyes and slobbering tongues.  They knew where they were going but they enjoyed the bit of diversion.

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As for our esteemed and benevolent landlord, he probably died from worrying about all those tenants and from a nasty case of stalactitis.  Perhaps the chisellers might come back and repoint the blocks, out of respect. He has got a new set of railings from the demolished Holy Faith Convent and also a colourful flower bed, not that  us cowboys would  have approved of flowers.

With regard to the clout in the ear in 1944, the young gentleman faded from my memory for many years. I encountered him in a bar half a lifetime later. I should have called him out and gunned him down in the dust for a low-down, side-windin’ bushwhacker, but there was no dust. I had left my shootin’ irons at home and he was a most genial and affable barman. Furthermore, he was about six foot six in height, with forearms like hams. I reckoned it was time to let the matter rest and mosey on down the trail, into the sunset.

Floraville, An Tóstal and a cause for celebration.

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That unprepossessing green patch, Floraville, half way along Strand Street, was so ugly that a wall was built to hide it from view.  Google earth can transport us back in time to—2005. My memory, however erratic, can do better than that. I recall Floraville when there was a house of that name standing there. In 1950, a mere five years after the War and only three years after the terrible winter of 1947, Ireland determined to go en fete, emerge from the darkness of the Forties and develop a tourist industry.Villages and towns throughout the island, began to organise festivals and events to lift the gloom. This didn’t happen by government decree. It happened because civic-minded people got together and worked for the benefit of their fellow citizens. A major Irish industry enjoyed an immediate revival…scoffing and ridicule. People of a certain age, remember The Bowl of Light on O Connell Bridge, immediately renamed The Tomb of the Unknown Gurrier. Somebody threw it into the Liffey. The gurrier is alive and well.   Steinbeck once remarked, on seeing a man rescuing a statue from a canal/river, (Erratic memory)  that there are two kinds of people, folks who throw things into rivers and  folks who pull things back out again.  Very occasionally you will see an old, cast-iron, An Tóstal road sign with the stylish, female harp, an early symbol of Ireland. Your best chance of seeing one nowadays is in an ‘Irish’ pub, somewhere abroad, possibly stolen by some gurrier.

We always say: “They should do something about that.” The Floraville Committee members were that ‘They.’ There was a flag pole, giving the house a semi-official standing. They organised events in the old house, lectures, classes in music and dancing, slide shows, exhibitions, club meetings  and whist drives. On Saint Patrick’s Day, The Skerries Brass and Reed Band started from there. The Graduates, a popular showband, practised there on Sunday mornings, their music occasionally adding a lively beat to Mass in the church nearby. Cycle races and occasionally running and walking races started there. The motor bikes of the Skerries 100 thundered impatiently on the starting grid, eager to be away into the country. Military parades, on a modest scale, began or ended on the broad space between Floraville and the library. There was a man called Bob in the F.C.A. who had a very deep, gruff voice.  When the parade marched up Strand Street and wheeled right to salute the flag, the crowd watched in respectful silence. The boots clattered on the pavement. The officer called a command. Just one other voice was audible. Bob’s : “Walk on your own feet—b****x.”  It took away from the solemnity of the occasion but it became a catchphrase with us schoolboys.

There was street dancing for An Tóstal, late at night. I was too young for romance. Grown-ups waltzed under the street lights. They were ancient, some of them in their twenties and thirties. It was all very strange. One of our classmates, in truth, a little gurrier, circulated furtively through the throng, jabbing the dancers with a hat-pin. The music drowned out their cries of pain. He returned to report his success at intervals. Nobody could catch him because of his size. He came back in astonishment. The point of the pin was bent at right angles. Some spoilsport was wearing  whale-bone body armour, better than kevlar. We gazed in wonder at his blunted weapon. He wouldn’t escape now. He is too slow and corpulent. Street dancing? It has always struck me as one of the great injustices suffered by Irish Catholics that on Mardi Gras, the South Americans celebrate with samba bands and women definitely not wearing whalebone, dancing in the streets, while we, the most faithful followers of the Church for thousands of years, dungeon fire and sword and all that,  get pancakes—admittedly with sugar and lemon. I suppose February can be a chilly month. I digress.

Floraville 2013

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They have been busy again. Some civic-minded people with a bit of imagination,vision and generosity, have transformed the Floraville site into a welcoming garden, a  South American style plaza  (ahem!), an oasis in the centre of town. With stone, concrete, glass and lawn, they have created a place that literally embraces the visitor. The long seat mimics the shape of our much loved harbour.  Believe me, you will be able to walk on the waves. The transverse line from East to West, like the aisle of a great cathedral, marks the boundary between the two historic parts of Skerries, the original Norse settlement at Hoar Rock and the townland of Holmpatrick. Centuries ago these two entities coalesced to form Skerries. They have invited us to commemorate those whom we cherished, a husband or wife, a child who slipped away too soon, grandparents, friends and colleagues, with their names engraved in granite on the path of memories. These were all, in their individual ways, building blocks of our community. It is simple, appropriate and beautiful.

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Margaret and I have chosen to commemorate our parents, the grandparents of our children, the great-grandparents of our grandchildren. They were always great. Tom came to Skerries at the age of five, an orphan, boarding with the Holy Faith Sisters. He returned with a young family in 1939, fearing that Dublin would be bombed in the impending war. He had had enough of war. A shrewd judgment on two counts. His wife, Kay, taught and educated generations of Skerries girls in the Holy Faith Convent. She is still remembered by her pupils. Barney joined the Civic Guards at the inception of the force. He served in Skerries and Balbriggan and was the youngest sergeant, at the age of nineteen. In his personal integrity and inflexible respect for the rule of law, he embodied the finest traditions of the Garda Síochána, the Guardians of the Peace. It was no small thing to join an unarmed police force in the middle of a bitter civil war. Terrified as he was of the sea, he nevertheless pulled an oar on the lifeboat in an emergency. He found his life’s love in Rita, whose warm and gentle nature touched all who knew her. She made all mother-in-law jokes incomprehensible to me.

Their memory will always be here now, in Floraville Garden, safe within harbour

Where no storms come

Where the green swell is in the havens dumb

And out of the swing of the sea.

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